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Feb. 23, 2009, 9:49 a.m.

Lab Book Club: The secret tie between Playboy and food stamps

Here’s the next installment of my interview with James Hamilton, author of this month’s Nieman Journalism Lab Book Club selection, All the News That’s Fit to Sell. Our topic here is Chapter 5, which focuses on, among other things, how market forces influence local TV news. Some of the topics we cover:

— How the format of local TV news forces news directors into certain kinds of stories;
— Why you never saw coverage of your local anti-Iraq War protests on TV;
— Why journalism sometimes requires going against market tastes; and
— Whether we’ll rely on a single online hub for our information in the future.

As always, there’s a full transcript below the jump.

Josh: All right, we’re back here with Jay Hamilton. We are at Chapter 5 of his book, All the News That’s Fit to Sell.

This chapter is a very fun chapter. It has a lot of great statistics looking at the correlation between the media activities that people partake of in a particular market and the way that local television and local newspapers cover issues — like the connection that if People Magazine subscriptions are high in a particular market, then you are also going to have a disproportionately large amount of soft news on local television, which I thought was kind of fascinating. You said if there are more Modern Maturity subscribers and AARP members, there are going to be fewer computer stories and the more Playboy subscribers, the less food stamp stories — which is an interesting set of correlations.

One difference that you point out in this chapter is that newspapers at one level don’t have to be as responsive to public demands, because they are able to bundle together lots of different types of information and types of stories into one package. And there’s so much of it that a reader can choose to read only the sports section if he wants or only read Home & Garden or whatever — as opposed to television, which is an ‘everyone gets the same product for 30 minutes’ kind of medium.

How do you think that kind of divide translates to an online environment, where there isn’t that sort of bundling? What kind of behavior would you expect online news sites to show, given that experience in print and television?

Jay: Sure. So in part, as you see convergence in England for instance, television — you have an ability to go a little bit deeper into stories so that you can already have a differentiation. With online sites from TV stations, to the extent that they are reusing or drawing on what they made to show on the screen at home, I still think that you would see this bias. Then in print it is still the great portfolio — you can go deep and you can ignore what doesn’t interest you.

So they’re both driven by economics. But what the television news in particular shows is that with the advertising focus — they have always been doing surveys. Many of them, in fact of the local television news stations, subscribe to consultant surveys.

So they found out, for instance, in the aftermath of the start of the Iraq war — they were given a list of stories that people said that they were interested in. Now I remember I was struck by the fact that the story that people said they were least interested in would be coverage of local protests against the war. And in fact, the war has often been a loser in terms of attention.

I remember back midway through the war, ABC News effectively when somebody said, “Why aren’t you putting the coverage on?” one of the producers said: “Women.” They had been looking and found that women that number were not interested in hearing yet another story about Iraq. At the network level, they have minute by minute Nielsen ratings by demographic groups so they know what types of stories and countries are boring to what people.

At the local level, essentially they do some surveys — so they know the type of market that they are in. In a market with low public-affairs attention, which I proxied by low subscription to something like Time or Newsweek, they’re less likely to talk to you about national-government stories in their local news.

Josh: I find it interesting that you say that the same newspaper portfolio model translates online somewhat. I would think that part of the reason why that portfolio model works is because the information is bundled and delivered to you. You buy the entire package. You have it so maybe you might look at some of the other stories that you might not be directly interested in. Whereas now, if I am interested in sports I can go to — I can choose a media source that is not my local newspaper.

And we’ve seen a lot of local newspapers, both for cost-cutting reasons and also for broader philosophical reasons, say: “OK, we have to focus now on not covering foreign issues anymore and not covering national issues anymore. We need to cover Topeka and be the best news source of information for Topeka.”

Jay: Right. So that’s a great point. So I guess it’s a question of how much of a portfolio are you. Because if you look at, say, the Seattle Times — I remember about five years ago being at a conference where one of their columnists said that they had been told that they could no longer write about national issues in the column and that they had to gave the Seattle take on particular issues.

I think the newspapers are definitely doing that so that they become more local. In the sense that their portfolio was once national/international/local, many of them are becoming much more local. But at the same time, within that local focus, you would still have local sports, local restaurants, local government. And unlike the local television news, over the air or now through your cable — they’re still telling the same story. Whereas the newspaper or the website does have that portfolio approach of: OK, I’m going to be local now, but is it local sports or local business?

But I think you have also hit on a question, which I think is a really open empirical question, which is essentially: Will people have what they think of as trusted hubs in the future? Will they go to The New York Times and say, “Okay, The New York Times is going to direct my attention to these different areas,” or are they going to knit together specialty sites and not start from one general interest site. And I don’t know the answer to that.

Josh: How does social media fit into this? I guess the book was first published in ’03, which is a bit before the MySpace/Facebook revolution. I guess it would have been around Friendster time. Does that environment, in which people are simply saying, “I want to learn certain things but I can rely on my friends who have their own blogs or their own Facebook pages, or whatever else, they will be the ones who inform me. I don’t need today go to the front page of every day to get informed.” How does that change the dynamics, since it seems like a very different delivery mechanism?

Jay: It is. I think people still have these basic needs of — I need to buy something, that’s consumer. I need to know something for my job, that’s producer. This is just interesting to me, and it could be I’m interested in a particular movie star, or I am interested in the person that I am going to see the movie with next weekend. And then there is the voter information. So I think the information demands are the same.

I think of social media as different in a couple of ways. Number one is: The low cost to it makes it a lot easier for expression as a production incentive to generate information. So when you think about people typing in, there’s an opportunity cost, right? They could be typing in or they could be playing soccer with their friends, or doing something else. But if they have this expression motive, they are going to be giving you some information.

You talked about people who no longer go to the Times, somebody emails them or lets them know what they are following on the Times. That’s true and my students are fascinated, at Duke, by aggregation. I still think the thing that’s missing is the creation.

So I think social media is great at saying: “Here’s information that exists that you might be interested in.” It’s almost like an Amazon. If you like this, you would like that. I still think what you need to worry about is who pays for the underlying creation of that information and who’s going to synthesize it.

Josh: Sure. But at the same time, even if social media is not producing this information, it would seem that it would have a significant influence on how it is produced. I mean, if people who work in newspapers always talk about the tyranny of the most-emailed lists. They can actually see these are the 10 stories that are most getting sent around from our readers to their friends, and they tend to be the ones that are the health tips, the cute dog story — things that don’t fit in with their journalistic paradigm of hard news. Is that influencing it?

Jay: It definitely is and it’s interesting. You talked again about the professional idea. In the past a reporter could say: “People are really interested in this. You, the editor, have a different assessment, but I know people care about this.” In a world of clickstreams the editor truly knows that, too — and so does the manager and the publisher. And that makes it harder to go against market tastes.

Why would you want to go against market tastes? Again, there’s this idea that there’s some information that people as citizens need to know, but individually they don’t demand it. The good news is, in a spatial model, there will be a subset of people who want to know about hard news — maybe because they work in government or interest groups, or maybe because they have a notion of civic obligation, or maybe just because they think that polls are like sport stats to them — they’re just inherently interested in it.

So there will be a sort of high-end market for that. The problem is that may work for national or international coverage but how many people in your local area would have to have that taste so that that information is created at the local level — the city council coverage, the county commission coverage.

Josh: Right, right. Well on that depressing note we’ll finish. Thanks again.

Jay: Thanks.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Feb. 23, 2009, 9:49 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Lab Book Club: Jay Hamilton
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